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January 22, 1999


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Not quite open and shut

Prem Panicker

So we can all breathe easy now and focus on trivialities, such as the upcoming Test series between India and Pakistan -- thanks to Bal Thackeray's magnanimous withdrawal of his threats.

I must confess to some quiet amusement at this end. My previous article, Gentlemen, Play!, did draw some positive response from people who felt, judging by the mails, that the rule of hooliganism needed to be stopped at all costs.

However, it also drew flames -- some, of a particularly virulent sort. I had one person, for instance, ask me if I would invite the rapists of my sister to my home for dinner, while the more moderate mails argued that Thackeray was right, that given events in Kashmir, cricket was the last thing we needed to focus on was cricket.

Fair enough. But barely 24 hours later, I am informed, via the press statement by the Shiv Sena boss, that he has been given to understand that terrorism in Kashmir is now under control.

It does make me wonder -- if that were the case, if terrorism were indeed under control, then did Thackeray make his initial wild pronouncements with no reference to the facts?

Or shall we tell the truth here? That for all his grand pronouncements, for all his nationalist fervour, the bottomline is simply this: that when it comes to the prospect of losing power in Maharashtra, then the long suffering people of Kashmir can go fry in their own juices? That the victims of terrorism in Kashmir can be, like everything else, sacrificed on the altar of his political expediency?

I was equally intrigued by the Sena boss's statement that this laissez faire situation will last for one year. Now what precisely does that mean, I wonder? Is it that Thackeray thinks that terrorism will escalate again next year? That does not sound like he has much confidence in the abilities of the government his own party is a part of, does it?

Or again, if we continue telling things like it is, does it mean that Maharashtra is due to go to the polls in March 2000, that Thackeray is aware that he might need to play his nationalist card all over again at that point in order to raise cain, and that he is therefore shrewdly reserving the option for that point in time?

Whatever -- for now, the Pakistan cricket team (or, as that impassioned letter writer put it, the representatives of "the rapists of my sister" -- *musing here, about the language people, supposedly civilised people, can employ to put their point, such as it is, across*) are welcome on our soil, so attention turns yet again to the game, rather than to political games.

Reading the team list reminded me of a recent conversation with Harsha Bhogle. The subject of opening batsmen had come up, and Harsha was indicating that in his book, Sadakopan Ramesh was the best prospect going around.

The left-handed opener from Tamil Nadu has a career highest of 93, made in the Deodhar Trophy, and an average of 48.5 in the one season, six games (four in Deodhar, two in Wills Trophy) in which he has figured.

Not startling figures those, but I reckon Harsha should know what he's talking about here, since he has been following domestic cricket far more closely, thanks to his weekly programme on ESPN, than I have.

That would seem to give the opening a more settled look than the late unlamented pair of Jadeja and Sidhu managed. VVS Laxman, of course, is that typically Indian phenomenon -- a middle order batsman without a slot to fill, jumped up by the powers that be into the only vacant slot in the lineup. But on the plus side, he has looked technically good during his rare outings under the India cap, and getting the job here will hopefully give him just the incentive he needs to settle down.

The ideal in my book would have been, if we were promoting middle order batsmen into the opening slot, to try Saurav Ganguly. He has the skill, more importantly he has the determination to bat on and on once he is set -- but all this is negated by his own unwillingness to open, so I guess that ends the debate right there. And Wasim Jaffer, for unexplained reasons, appears to have been dumped in cold storage by the selectors.

More than the batting -- which appears well manned with Dravid, Tendulkar, Azharuddin and Ganguly following the two openers -- it is the bowling that, yet again, will cause concern.

As things stand, there is room only for four bowlers, what with Mongia coming in at number 7. That would seem to indicate a mix of two seamers, and two spinners. And first up, it is difficult to see any two of the three, Kumble, Joshi and Harbajan, really putting pressure on the Pakistan batsmen, who are as spin-happy as are their Indian counterparts.

That leaves Srinath and Prasad -- and here again, the former could be disadvantaged by lack of support at the other end. True, Prasad appeared to have got his leg cutters working well again towards the latter part of the Kiwi tour -- but that was in seam friendly conditions, and given the presence of Wasim Akram, Mohammad Akram, Waqar Younis and Shahid Nazir in the Pakistan ranks with Azhar Mahmood in support, it seems unlikely that seam-friendly wickets will be prepared for this particular encounter.

In fact, despite Pakistan's ability to play spin, it wouldn't surprise anyone to see India going in for spin-friendly wickets and banking on that to dull the Pak pace brigade. With Mushtaq Ahmed supported by Saqlain Mushtaq, that might prove a dangerous gamble -- but not half as dangerous as providing a well-stocked Pak pace battery with ideal conditions for swing and seam.

Ironically, given that a four-man attack seems rather limited when going up against Anwar, Malik, Ijaz, Inzamam and Youhanna with Akram and Azhar Mahmood in support, the sensible solution would seem to be to blood the teenage all-rounder from Bengal.

Those who have seen him at close quarters indicate that he is quite nippy, and a bowler in the Agarkar mould -- which would give the Srinath-Prasad duo some support. But to do that, India will need, yet again, to go in with Mongia at the top of the batting order, in order to accomodate an all rounder at 7 -- which means that we will be solving one temporary problem while leaving a more permanent one unaddressed.

So what kind of team could we be looking at, here? In batting order, Laxman, Mongia, Dravid, Tendulkar, Azharuddin, Ganguly, Shukla, Srinath, Kumble, Prasad and Harbajan appear the best bet -- five specialist batsmen, two all rounders (Mongia's dual role qualifying him for that position alongside Shukla) and four bowlers, with Tendulkar and Ganguly in supporting roles with the ball.

To go that route, however, will entail that India, yet again, uses the Mongia shortcut -- which in turn means that when we go abroad next, the whole can of worms at the top of the order will be reopened. So which route does the side go -- short term solution for this tour, or a longer term attempt to settle the opening slot?

You tell me.

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